“Yay, yay, yay, lights!,” said Michelle Obama, the former first lady, Monday night as she prepared to press a giant white button to officially unveil the Christmas windows on Saks Fifth Avenue.
With the movement, miles of light bulbs attached to the limestone facade flickered on, turning the 10-story neoclassical building into a twinkling, multicolored ice castle. “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” blared from the speakers. The black curtains lifted to reveal bobbing houses, spinning coconuts and leaping dolphins in bright, saturated colors. Fireworks shot from the roof.
Each window was inspired by children’s drawings of vacation dreams – of houses, beaches and games. “The style is kind of like a candy-coated imagination,” said Andrew Winton, the senior vice president of creative at Saks, who oversees the holiday displays.
Mrs. Obama was there to promote a partnership between Saks and the Obama Foundation’s Girls Opportunity Alliance. In addition to a $1 million donation, the store curated capsule collections with some of Ms. Obama’s favorite design labels, including Jason Wu, Philip Lim and Oscar de la Renta, with 100 percent of net proceeds going to the foundation this year. The collections include clothing, household items, beauty and accessories.
Fifth Avenue was closed to traffic and crowds lined police barricades. But despite the pyrotechnics, the lavish tradition of handmade Christmas window displays that has drawn shoppers to Midtown Manhattan over the past century is waning.
Once destinations for their ornate displays, Lord & Taylor, Barneys New York and Henri Bendel have closed their flagships in recent years. Today, only a handful of New York City department stores — Saks, Bergdorf Goodman, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s — produce elaborate traditional storefronts. (Instead of holiday windows, Nordstrom will occupy the store’s 57th Street location with 50 miles of lights, 150 trees, and seven 10-foot nutcrackers.)
“It’s so sad when another of our competitors closes; it makes us work a lot harder,” said John Klimkowski, senior director of visual merchandising at Bloomingdale’s, who oversaw window design at the retailer for a decade. With less to see, he added, “ours should be even more memorable.”
Macy’s is credited with bringing holiday windows to New York City in 1874, with an extravagant exhibit on 34th Street in Herald Square. Over the years, now-closed shops along Fifth Avenue competed in a creative arms race to outdo each other with dazzling installations that drew crowds and inspired family traditions.
“Most don’t contain merchandise,” says Sheryll Bellman, the author of “Through the Shopping Glass: A Century of New York Christmas Windows.” “It was meant to please the audience. It was their gift to the city.”
Last year, when the pandemic made it harder for window dressers to work in person and get needed supplies, some department store displays were toned down. Crowds were also sparse. (Saks raised the windows and attended a light show by Jennifer Lopez and her then-fiance Alex Rodriguez, but there was no audience and no fireworks.)
This year, with retailers optimistic about the Christmas shopping season, meticulous shop windows and tradition-conscious fans have returned.
At Bergdorf Goodman on Nov. 18, the audience stood shoulder to shoulder on both sides of Fifth Avenue and 58th Street as a string orchestra played upbeat Christmas classics. Santa Claus posed for photos and rang sleigh bells.
“Life is turning around again,” Linda Fargo, Bergdorf Goodman’s fashion director, said as the department store unveiled its Christmas windows.
In a window sat a mermaid in a magenta sequined CD Greene dress, resting on a bed-blinded motorcycle surrounded by spiked fish. In another, a mannequin in an embroidered gold Schiaparelli dress and jacket danced on the moon. At the bottom of the row, fluffy white-and-black dogs surrounded a figure in a puffy winter coat.
Each celebrates different moods, including adventurous, harmonious and playful. David Hoey, senior director of visual presentation at Bergdorf, said the windows were inspired by a psychedelic sculpture of a green bird. “Last year was kind of minimalism,” said Mr. Hoey. “This year is maximalism, which is our trademark.”
Mariana Morales, 18, a student from Guatemala City, was in town with her family. She tries to visit the windows as often as she can, but was unable to do so last year due to the pandemic. She said she almost cried when she saw the Bergdorf display. “You feel like you’re being transported to another world,” she said.
At Macy’s, which also unveiled its windows on November 18, the look and feel was more traditional. The windows tell the story of Tiptoe, a spirited reindeer who tries to believe she can fly. According to Manny Urquizo, Macy’s national window and campaign director, the images are influenced by old Claymation Christmas movies.
On Saturday afternoon, while fast-walking shoppers juggled bags and a street cart sold roasted nuts, Carlye Allen, her husband and their 2-year-old son took to the festive shop windows. The family was in town from Arlington, Texas, for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Ms. Allen, 28, a wedding photographer, said that among the lights, smells and sounds, “It feels like we’re in a Hallmark movie.
“One hundred percent are living the dream,” she said.
Holiday music also filled the streets in front of Bloomingdale’s. The store’s designers filled the windows along Lexington Avenue with items they loved as children, such as dinosaurs and crochet blankets.
There was a T. Rex covered in ornaments on a skateboard. Another window had penguins in parkas surrounded by figurines. Down the line, a bright pink mannequin on glittering roller skates twirled in a sequined clamshell.
On the other side of the glass, Jeannie Dumas, 66, a clinical social worker, and her daughter, Alexandra, who lives in Brooklyn, admired the displays. They have a tradition of visiting the shops together, but did not feel safe last year. The couple were excited to be back and comforted themselves by returning to see the windows.
“We’ve been through a trauma,” said Mrs. Dumas. “Doing things that are ritual gives a sense of security and healing.”